Remembering the fallen – 10 years since the 2004 tsunami

The picture is of the rocks that saved my life. To the right of the white building are the stairs that provided our escape route
The picture is of the rocks that saved my life. To the right of the white building are the stairs that provided our escape route

Ten years ago I survived the tsunami.

On Boxing Day 2004, I was taking a morning run along Patong Beach, Phuket. It was a picture perfect day – so much so that this led to one of the many fateful decisions that most likely saved my life.

It was so beautiful that morning I decided to keep running rather than stop at my hotel on the beachfront for breakfast. Later that day I learned that the hotel had been completely destroyed.

After running for another 10 minutes, I made another life-changing decision; not to go to the gym which was situated half way along Patong Beach. In fact I walked into the gym and then decided to walk out again, as I wanted to keep running to the end of the beach first, and then come back to it afterwards. I will never know what fate would have befallen me if I had of stayed in the gym. But, like the hotel, the gym was also totally smashed by the waves.

As I ran further up the beach I noticed the sea seemed to be receding. By the time I got to the very end of the beach I decided to buy a bottle of water from the cafe right in the corner, below the Novotel Patong – another one of those fateful moments, and a decision that I am sure that saved my life that morning.

Gary Marshall
Gary Marshall

The cafe was situated up about 10-12 feet above the sea, and it was there I stood when, about three minutes later, the tsunami unleashed its mighty force on Patong. The huge surge of water passed only about a few feet below the rocks on which I stood – the rocks that saved my life.

I was now looking on, in a direct line down the beach, and vividly remember the scene: power boats, sailing boats and other sea craft being picked up like corks and thrown into the streets of Patong. Then, in a surreal moment, I remember that despite the chaos all around, it was strangely quiet. There was no noise from birds or dogs, and the hairs on the back of my neck hair starting rising, as I realised I was right in the middle of an incredible natural phenomenon.

It was at that point I also realised the danger I was in, as the water now had now started to come up on to the rocks. The way back was now completely blocked by the water and the behind me was only cliffs – there was no way out.  Then I noticed a small set of stairs to the street level above. I quickly ushered the two small children of the cafe’s owner, Khun Poo, and her mother up the stairs, while Khun Poo went to wake her sister who she thought was still sleeping.

I remember seeing Khun Poo up to her knees in the water, but thankfully she managed to make it up the stairs behind us. Her sister was not there, but fortunately it turned out she was at the market. And it was those few seconds that likely also saved her life; any longer it would have been a different story.

From the relative safety of the hill we watched as the next three waves hit Patong. This is the same view that many of you would have since seen over and over again on television.

It was only after the fourth wave we thought it was all over, but then it was announced on the news that there was going to be a 50-metre tsunami wave hit Phuket within the hour. The relative calm then turned to chaos as we realised we were all in severe danger.

The survivors now started to make their way up to the highest points of Phuket Hill. There was a traffic jam as it seemed like the entire town was moving to higher ground, but we eventually got to the top and waited for the big one to come. Thankfully it never did.

To this day there are people I still thank for their friendship; their quick responses in a time of dire need for getting me out of there that night. Con Korfiatis, Chris Tan and Melvin Lim for arranging tickets and a hotel back in Bangkok.

My thoughts today go to my special Italian friend who I met that day up on the hill; Michela Montolli.

There were approximately 2,500 people killed in Patong by the devastating waves that day, and it changed the lives of so many people. It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since that day. My thoughts go to those that lost loved ones that day.

To this day Khun Poo and her family still operate the restaurant so please go and support her next time you are in Patong.

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